Climate Change & Climate Action Security & Defense Technology & Innovation
GeoTech Cues August 25, 2021

Reimagining a just society pt. 5: “Is this working as intended?” — Global trends amid contested futures

By Carol Dumaine

A hundred-foot tall, twenty-ton Chinese rocket recently crashed into the ocean in an uncontrolled descent to Earth. It just as easily could have landed in the middle of a city. Before its impact, a major news anchor  asked  a space expert: “Is this working as intended?” 

This question of ‘is this working as intended’ is applicable to contemporary concepts of national and international security as well as of economic value, growth, and development. Given how our world is being reshaped by new technologies, data capabilities, and geopolitics, leaders in both the public and private sector need to pause and consider if governance and geopolitics in today’s world are actually working – or not. Such reflection seems especially necessary after reading the recently released Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World  document, part of a series of future-oriented scenario-based global outlooks produced by the US National Intelligence Council every four years. This question seems all the more urgent in light of the last seventy-plus years of investment in all types of military equipment and operations, wars, and other conflicts—epitomized by the US involvement for twenty years in, and current withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan—as well as international security and development. 

Public commentary on the latest Global Trends report has focused on its grim outlook for humanity, here, here, and here, noting the report’s emphasis on demographic, economic, climatic, and technology trends. Such commentary generally fails, however, to reflect on how humanity got here or asks what is to be done except occasionally recommending a more “anticipatory” approach to governance. In one such commentary, the New York Times editorial board recommended that “President Biden can…be the one to recognize that an increasingly complex, volatile and unpredictable world requires a serious and coherent mechanism for anticipating and preparing for what lies over that dark horizon.”  Certainly, that is necessary but if that is the extent of humanity’s purpose — merely to document and prepare for the purportedly coming derailment of human society and to harness what remains of a nation’s security in its defense against the darkness — it sounds medieval in its fatalism. Without proactive and collective engagement on changing the paradigm that contributed to the current dangers, it is as if we are living in an age of pre-science ignorance. Understanding what that paradigm is and has been, and how it evolved, is necessary. 

The pandemic itself, of course, reminds us of the costs of lack of preparedness on the parts of individual nations and multilateral systems but it does much more than that. It points out pathologies in the way our modern economy works. It has focused a spotlight, for instance, on societal inequities, systemic racism, and other vulnerabilities that continue to make the pandemic’s effects so much worse particularly in societies already weakened by inadequate social protections, polarized by social media-fueled disinformation, and harmed by poor governance and public health communication.

This certainly describes the US experience of the pandemic in its first year, with a COVID-19 death toll  now estimated  in one study to be over 900,000 Americans. Now, more than a year into the pandemic, COVID-19 has ravaged India and neighboring countries as well as Indonesia and others, causing suffering and death on an unimaginable scale. More recently, the new Delta variant also has devastated many US communities that generally have lower vaccination rates. In India, the government’s disregard for public health care has contributed to what one  informed observer, Indian author, and environmental and human rights activist Arundhati Roy, has called “a crime against humanity.” At the peak of the latest COVID-19 surge, thousands of people in India died due to lack of oxygen; hospital directors  took to social media to plead for oxygen assistance.

The pandemic is a harbinger of the mounting human toll of social and economic inequities, poor governance, lack of foresight, and social media-fueled disinformation

AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

In the midst of this unprecedented global disaster, the Global Trends 2040 report clearly foresees a world of continued hardships and warns of the inadequacy of existing systems and models to deal with them. In the contested world foreseen in the report, the leading edge of mankind’s global equivalent of uncontrolled rocket debris — such as climate change, COVID-19 pandemic-aggravated inequities and inequality, and unevenly distributed benefits of technology — is expected to impact the developing world first and hardest. The report notes that the most effective states in this contested world will be those that “can build societal consensus and trust toward collective action and harness the relative expertise, capabilities, and relationships of nonstate actors to complement state capability.”   

The report, furthermore, raises the requirement — without actually prescribing it (policy prescriptions are outside of the Intelligence Community’s legal role) —for a dramatic departure from past practices, even as parts of the report declare that certain underlying factors, such as within-country economic inequality, are “here to stay”.  On the issue of economic inequality, the report explains: “A number of structural causes combined to contribute to this growing inequality, including technological advancements that favored advanced educations and specialized skills while automating low-skill jobs; the outsourcing of many jobs and industries to developing economies; and an ideological shift toward market-driven solutions and away from redistributive, government policies.”  From this, the assumption might be that there are no plausible scenarios in which policies are implemented to correct for this persistent and growing inequality—inequality that has been shown by research elsewhere, such as in Thomas Piketty’s latest book, Capital and Ideology, to stem from political-ideological policy choices. Piketty writes that “inequality is neither economic nor technological; it is ideological and political.” Piketty’s research into the history of inequality shows that society’s conception of social justice and economic fairness shape the legal, fiscal, educational, and political systems that people choose to adopt. Markets, competition, profits and wages, tax havens, and competitiveness are examples of “social and historical constructs” that would not exist except for political-ideological policy choices.  

Piketty maintains that the rise of inequality, along with global warming, is one of the principal challenges confronting the world today; a political-ideological refusal to take the issue of inequality seriously, particularly when it comes to wealth inequality, will prevent effective action to mitigate and adapt to climate change effects. 

To devise sensible policy responses to the warnings contained in the Global Trends report, it is necessary to first understand the history of how humankind got here (such as Piketty does in his latest book on the topic of inequality). The Global Trends report describes man-made problems, such as human-induced climate change, widening inequality, and even the pandemic’s impacts, so it follows that certain policy approaches, assumptions, and values led to this state of affairs and that new policy instruments, ideas, and institutional capacities are needed to abate, if not even reverse, its worst potential effects. This in turn would lead us into the area of what is valued as a human species and whether, the priorities and policies put in place, have led to this more “contested world” and the global public health and climate emergencies. This is a conversation that this report, among many others, implicitly makes urgent. 

The  Global Trends  document provides much food for thought relevant to this “Reimagining a Just Society” series. As a former intelligence analyst with a  role in the origins  of the Global Trends series, I’ve focused on several takeaways from the report that bear emphasis in this and subsequent blogposts as this series transitions to considerations of what is being done and what can be done to address global challenges on this scale. (The report is about 150 pages long, so the following discussion is not a comprehensive treatment of its findings.) 

Here are some key takeaways from the report: 

  • The world is facing  shared global challenges  “that often lack a direct human agent.” This means, according to the contributors to  Global Trends 2040,  that “national security will require not only defending against armies and arsenals but also withstanding and adapting to these global challenges.” These shared global challenges include diseases, such as the ongoing pandemic, climate change, technological disruption, and financial crises. The current international system is poorly suited to dealing with these global challenges, according to the report. 
  • The world is facing  disequilibrium  as ‘the scale of transnational challenges, and the emerging implications of fragmentation, are exceeding the capacity of existing systems and structures.”  The report’s authors warn of a fractured international system that is more competitive and fraught with a greater risk of conflict, despite the existence of shared global challenges. 
  • Interactions among these global trends “are likely to produce  greater contestation at all levels  than has been seen since the end of the Cold War, reflecting different ideologies as well as contrasting views on the most effective way to organize society and tackle emerging challenges,” according to the report’s authors. 
  • The report notes, there is a “growing mismatch between what publics need and expect and what governments can and will deliver.”  This “widening gap” portends more volatility, erosion of democracy and expanding roles for alternative providers of governance.”  
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has brought global health issues into sharp relief,  according to the report. Are the pandemic’s disruptions temporary,  or could they unleash new forces to shape the future? The pandemic “is slowing and possibly reversing some longstanding trends in human development, especially the reduction of poverty and disease, and closing gender inequality gaps.” 
  • Challenges related to climate change impacts, including extreme events that become more intense and frequent, will make it difficult for some societies to “recover from one event before the next one hits.” 
  • “Current international law and cooperative bodies are increasingly mismatched to global climate change challenges,” says  the report. The report’s authors note, as previous blog posts in this series also have done, that international refugee law “does not account for people displaced by climate change effects.” 

The Global Trends report provides five different scenarios of potential global futures allegedly out to 2040 but underestimates the speed and scale at which climate change impacts already are occurring. This shortcoming affects all the scenarios including one that, despite its title, might be seen by some readers as ultimately a hopeful one; in addition to the clearly hopeful “Renaissance of Democracies” scenario, is the “Tragedy and Mobilization” scenario, which can be seen as ultimately hopeful. This scenario, which is set in 2040, envisions human tragedy of the 2030s on a scale that galvanizes international action on climate change.

For now, one way of imagining the impacts of climate change impacts on more traditional considerations of “great power” rivalries and realpolitik is to witness how much the pandemic’s effects already have affected international politics and diplomacy, right down to closed consular offices and borders. Climate change impacts in the 20-year span covered by this report are likely to be much more disruptive which makes it curious that a  “Tragedy and Mobilization” scenario is not one imagined for the 2020s. Presently we have all the information we need, along with the humanitarian, economic, and national security disaster of an ongoing pandemic, to spur us to invest in needed new policies and forms of cooperation to mitigate and adapt to climate change and be better prepared for future pandemics. These issues will be the subject of the next posts in this blog post series. 

The  Global Trends 2040  report does not suggest that the world must wait until 2040 to take remedial action such as that envisioned in its “Tragedy and Mobilization” scenario, but it can be read to imply that such action is not likely sooner. Some might call this “kicking the can down the road” although that is not necessarily intended.  The report is focused on 2040, not the 2020s after all. The question to ask is why not aim for a brighter future today, when there are still more options and time available to avert the worst-case climate disruption scenarios, than to bank on currently envisioned technologies that are unproven or not clearly scalable in time? The Intelligence Community has done its job, however, and such a question is best addressed to policymakers and citizens of all countries.

Humanity would be better served to treat the future less as an out-of-control twenty-ton rocket threatening our lives and more like something to be imagined, planned for, and worked on in different ways and through different systems, with appreciation for historical root causes and lessons learned across nations, in time to avert worst-case outcomes. This is what governance means in the 21st century. 

Previous installment

GeoTech Cues

Mar 31, 2021

Reimagining a just society pt. 4: New maps for a world disrupted by climate change

By Carol Dumaine

On a radically transformed planet, different conceptual maps are necessary for understanding what today’s priorities must be. These maps, or mental models, inform the framing that policy and decision makers use to weigh their options. Limitations in our conceptual frames can drastically limit the scope of considered futures.

Climate Change & Climate Action Security & Defense

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Image: Carrier rocket Kuaizhou 1A (KZ 1A) launches from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan city, north-west China's Gansu province, 13 November 2019. China sent a new remote sensing satellite into planned orbit from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Northwest China on Wednesday. The Jilin 1 Gaofen 02A, which belongs to the Jilin-1 satellite family, was launched by carrier rocket Kuaizhou 1A (KZ 1A).No Use China. No Use France.